Series producer Kevin Dawson shares his impressions of the pioneering electric car ride across Europe undertaken by a BBC Radio 4 team.
We've just driven around western Europe in an electric car, about 4,500 miles in four weeks. People looked at us as if we were crazy - they drove up behind our car on the Autobahn flashing their lights and blowing their horns and they helped as I passed the mains lead through their kitchen windows for an ad hoc plug in, but behind the smiles their eyes said: 'Who is this deceived English fool?' In a few years, a very few years, it is clear that I won't be seen as a lone eccentric or even an early adopter. Electric vehicles are about to arrive and they are coming in their millions.
Throughout Europe there are clear signs of what is ahead, but the picture varies widely depending on where you are. Car manufacturers themselves all seem - at face value, at least - to be taking this future seriously. Governments are beginning to embrace the issues of infrastructure. Charging points are being built and decisions being made regarding the cash incentives to encourage consumers to bite this electro-bullet.
Choosing a car for the journey was actually quite straightforward. There really aren't that many vehicles out there yet capable of doing such a trip. There are some low-range, low-speed city cars and lots of development vehicles but we wanted to use something simple, something that Radio 4 listeners could genuinely go out and buy.
THINK is a Norwegian company, once partially owned by Ford and now wholly independent. It builds a vehicle called the THINK City, which, as the name suggests, is a two-seater 'city' car, but it has a respectable top speed of just under 70mph and a single charge range of about 100 miles. It is fully crash-tested, has been trundling around the roads of Scandinavia for a few years now, is reliable and works.
Meeting the steed
My first meeting with our trusty steed was in the car park beneath London's Marble Arch. Images of the tyre-squealing race scenes from 'Get Carter' swam before me as I reached the car park. They fell away when I was met with a little red plastic vehicle. Yes, plastic. It's not a very encouraging material - well, not for a car. Cars should be steel. They should look tough, not toy. A few weeks later we were to bump into a punk band outside Gothenburg: 'It's plastic,' they leered. 'Does it say made in Hong Kong on it?' My shame was complete.
The purpose of the trip was to make a series of radio documentaries for BBC Radio 4, called 'Electric Ride'. As the producer I was to make these while we travelled, so that the audience could follow our progress across Europe. Apart from me, the team consisted of presenter Peter Curran, writer Richard Scrase and assistant producer Rose de Larrabeiti. Our route was to take us from London to Denmark, then through Norway, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Portugal, then back up to the UK through France. The THINK itself only seats two, so we also had a support car, to carry half of us and our gear.
With this mammoth distance ahead, my biggest concern was range, the great sticking point with electric vehicles. The THINK is one of the best in its class, and the cars to be released over the next few years by major manufacturers seem to work to a similar model of 100 miles on one charge. There are exceptions, like the high-performance Tesla Roadster with a range of about 250 miles, but at around £75,000 this was beyond the budget of most of our listeners.
Range is, of course, restricted by the battery technology, but this is without doubt the fastest changing and growing sector of the EV industry. THINK has the traction battery module located underneath the vehicle's seats, where it is well protected and provides good weight distribution, as this is by far the heaviest part of the car. It offers two battery options: lithium-ion and sodium based.
The price of a plug-in
With a 100-mile range, 4,000 miles to cover and a time frame of 30 days, we were going to have to do better than one charge a day. Our strategy was to set off early in the morning, drive for a couple of hours, stop for a waist-expanding four- to five-hour lunch plug-in, then press on into the evening.
If you ever want to meet local people when you are travelling, get yourself an electric car. As you drive along and watch the power gauge rapidly head towards zero, the hunter instinct overcomes you. You start to sniff out power and spot opportunities for a straightforward plug-in. People we met through energy desperation included a remote Bavarian farmer, a petite French toy shop owner and a Spanish gnome collector - the only thing any of them had in common was plug sockets.
Occasionally, obtaining power involved bartering. In the remote foothills of the Pyrenees, we stumbled across a dilapidated restaurant. Outside sat the weather-beaten owner - both looked as if they hadn't served a customer for quite some years. Not the sort of place for lunch, but the power gauge was dropping and so were our standards. It became obvious that, to feed the car, we were going to have to feed ourselves: 'Any chance of lunch and a plug-in?' Around us barked and danced six or seven mangy mongrels, the smell and evidence of their toileting engulfed the humid lobby area of the cafe. As we sat down to eat our greasy lunch, I felt like a pioneer, battling through adversity in my quest to explore the electric future.
When we were planning the trip, we believed, somewhat naively perhaps, that we would be relying on official charging points to charge our vehicle. The reality was very different. Across Europe, charging networks are being established as I write, but every nation is at a very different stage. Most major cities have a network of charging points of sorts, but there is little joined up thinking regarding the standardisation of plug fitting and security access to the plugs. Confusion often reigns. In Switzerland, for example, we were given an access key to use with public charging stations. The same evening we arrived in a small alpine hilltop town to find the charge points were privately owned and our key didn't work. It was only the attentions of a sympathetic hotelier with a socket in his garage that enabled us to continue our journey.
There is a useful website (www.lemnet.org) that details where all the charging points are and includes a telephone number to call for information for each one, but we soon found this process far too cumbersome. The secret to our success was campsites and marinas for lunchtime charges - they nearly always have 'hook-up' power points and the owners are used to people plugging their vehicles in - and at night, we would choose hotels where the owners would allow us to charge-up.
As we travelled around Europe, we wanted to meet with as many of the key Europe-based car manufacturers as we could to find out which direction they were heading in. The picture does vary from company to company, but most seem to be taking on a graded approach, making their combustion engine vehicles as efficient as possible before releasing their plug-in hybrids. Many are then planning to move on to 100 per cent electrical vehicles and then, in some cases, looking to other technologies. i.e. fuel cells.
Take Volvo, for instance. They plan by 2012 to produce a plug-in hybrid that combines battery operation with a fuel-efficient diesel hybrid engine. The battery will be charged through a regular electrical socket, with a diesel engine as back-up in case the power runs out. The electricity has a range of up to 50km, a distance that covers the daily driving needs for just over 75 per cent of motorists in Europe. The company already have a fully-electric C30 on trial. Its electric motor has a power output of 82kW, 111bhp. It accelerates from 0-100km/h in 10.5 seconds, has a range of 150km and charging takes about eight hours. It uses Lithium batteries with a nominal energy content of 24kWh, of which 22.7kWh are used to power the car.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating visits was to the Wolfsburg VW plant. This is the biggest car plant in Europe and it takes your breath away. We arrived early one Monday morning and, as our little electric car hummed its way into the vicinity of the factory, a peculiar realisation came upon me - every single car on the roads was a VW. There was clearly a shift beginning. Our little red plastic THINK car was turning heads as we trundled around the vast car plant, which stretches over 5 sq kms.
The first stage of the factory was commissioned by Hitler in 1938. After the war, all the equipment was scheduled to be salvaged for reparations, but a British Army Officer, Major Ivan Hirst, established an order for 20,000 Beetles to help the British Army with its shortage of light transport. Thus the factory was saved and the future of VW secured.
Today's plant is so vast that workers get about the factory on bicycles and electric golf carts. It feels more like a ship-building yard than a car plant due to it's sheer expanse and the 150 presses, making this the largest press shop in the world. We were shown around by Klaus Wehrmann, who was like a child in a massive mechanical toyshop. He loves the enormous steel presses, which crashed and groaned around us. He ran from one machine to the next on the oil-smeared floor, encouraging us to listen to the ear-shattering pounding as car panel after car panel was created through sheer brute force of 8,000 tonnes. 'It's like music!' he shouted over the din. 'Like hard rock music! I call it heavy metal!'
But it is behind the scenes that things get really interesting. The research and development department at VW is like something out of James Bond. High security, shuttered doors and air locks. We were led through the various research labs by Frank Seigfreid, the man responsible for drive train energy at VW research. One door revealed intensive lithium battery research, behind the next they were finalising the plans for their plug-in hybrids. Then we entered a third lab. It looked a little like a biological research facility but there were no embryos inside, these were fuel cells, a clue to VW's commitment to a long-term future involving hydrogen.
Their hydrogen prototype engine stood in the corner, a massive futuristic and alien invention that would have looked more at home as part of the space programme. It appeared far too big to fit into a standard VW but we were assured it would, and through the next door we spotted a Tiguan SUV, converted to be powered by this hydrogen beast.
There is one enormous pleasure about driving around in an electric car. It is not self-righteous eco back-slapping, neither is it the luxury of ignoring soaring petrol prices: it is the silence. In our little THINK there was barely any noise, just a little rumble from the tyres. This was true of all the electric cars we drove - the Volvo and the Nissan Leaf were particularly quiet, although it has to be said that the Smart electric did have an unfortunate dentist's drill moment as you accelerated. For me, the most memorable point of the trip was climbing the San Bernardino pass, crossing the Alps. There was no other traffic on the steep narrow road, but as we ascended through hair-pin bend after hair-pin bend we could hear the birdsong, the babbling streams and even the cracking as the last of the year's snow melted on the mountain-tops. That is a special driving moment and one I feel privileged to have experienced.
Any discussion about electric vehicles must include reference to the origins of the electricity being used. Immediately after the first programme went to air, the phone began to ring and the emails to arrive: 'There is nothing eco-friendly about electrical vehicles unless the power they consume is produced sustainably'.
The picture of sustainable electricity generation across Europe is massively variable. One of the first stops on our journey was the Danish Island of Sams', often referred to as Denmark's Energy Island - the clue is in the name. Sams' is a remarkable place, and as our little red electric car trundled off the ferry, we were met by the admiring glances of the island's residents (Samsingers, as they are known). The Samsingers have really achieved something remarkable. The island is carbon-negative.
Sams' is a special case, but Denmark generally still leads the world, getting more than 19 per cent of its energy from wind power alone. Spain and Portugal are its nearest rivals and they only manage about 10 per cent. Incidentally, wind power is big business in Denmark ' this tiny country controls one-third of the global wind market. The country's attitude to energy seems to reach right down through the population of 5.5 million. This is a highly energy-efficient nation, it gets more GDP per watt than any other country in Europe.
The most refreshing thing about the energy-aware people on Sams' is that they do not have some new-age hippy gospel to preach, they are pragmatists, proud of the hundreds of Krone they save every year in non-existent heating bills.
At the moment, electric vehicles are expensive. Our THINK City will go on sale at about £28,000 later this year. That is a lot of money for a two-seater run-about, however well it performs.
Nissan are predicting that their Leaf (a small family car) will be about the same price. Renault, however, have a slightly different sales model planned. They intend to market their new range of four fully-electric vehicles (two on sale next year, two by 2012), at the same price as their internal combustion equivalents. There is a catch, though. That price does not include the battery, which the purchaser will have to lease on a monthly basis. Renault claim that the cost of leasing the battery and the nominal amount of electricity used when charging will still be less than the amount the average person spends on petrol or diesel each month. If that really is the case, this is a model that could work.
The culmination of our electro tour was joining the Brighton to London Eco-Rally, accompanied by assorted eco-aware celebrities in various electric and alternative powered vehicles from Tesla's to Tata's. As we drove silently into the capital, I couldn't help noticing the mechanical contraptions on the roads around us - they made noise, smelt, had lots of clattering moving parts, and under the bonnet they were hot, oily and dirty. All of a sudden, they seemed very out of date, almost Victorian. A leftover from the industrial revolution.
I normally drive an Alfa Romeo and love it. They know how to build an internal combustion engine. But I won't be buying another one.